Friday, December 31, 2010

Once Upon a Christmas

After a tragic loss, Celia Delacourt faces the daunting prospect of a lonely life as a governess... or worse.  Then the Duchess of Arnsford, her distant cousin, invites Celia to spend Christmas on the family estate.  Celia suspects an ulterior, but nonetheless decides that there are worse ways to pass the holidays than by spending them in a palace with family - however distant. 

Jack Delacourt knows his mother is plotting something when he receives a Christmas invitation from her.  If his mother plans to bully him into marrying a stranger, Jack is prepared to fight - with a delightfully mischievous plan of his own.  Then he meets Celia and discovers she's not what he expected.  In fact she's more than he dreamed.  Now, instead of playing the fool, he's becoming one - for love.

A lovely holiday story that I will enjoy again next year. 

This was a sweet story that I enjoyed reading last Christmas and earmarked for this year so I could enjoy it again and write a review.  Its a charmer of a book and, I'm ashamed to say, only my second Diane Farr title.  I really enjoyed her book The Nobody which led me to picking up this little gem, in addition to a few other Farr titles I have on my To-Be-Read shelf.  So many books, so little time, ya know?

So, first we meet Celia Delacourt.  While pondering her future (and imminent homelessness), she receives a visit from her very distant cousin, the Duchess of Arnsford.  A critical eye and an interview later, the duchess invites Celia to Delacourt for Chrismas and Celia accepts the invitation.  A visit would be a welcome change of scenery... but the duchess has a plan that will allow Celia to stay at Delacourt permanently.

Meanwhile, Jack Delacourt, Marquess of Lynden is carousing with his friends when he opens a missive from his mother - an invitation to Christmas at the family home.  Instantly a battalion of red flags pop up since he always makes an appearance for Christmas without the need of a formal invite.  Jack knows his mother has something up her lace-cuffed sleeves and it doesn't take much to realize that she's matchmaking.  Unenthused by this predicament, Jack comes up with a strategy to thwart his mother's plans by scaring off this girl who, no doubt, has high hopes of becoming his duchess.  Yes, scaring her off is the thing to do because Jack refuses to succumb to his mother's wishes... no matter what.

I really enjoyed this story for its witty writing and charming characters.  Celia is a sweetheart of a girl trying to find a place in the world while mourning the loss of her family.  Jack, of course, wreaks havoc, much to his family's disapproval and embarrassment.  But to appease his mother just a little, he does spend some time getting to know his distant relation.  Then he becomes intrigued, surprised... and maybe a bit smitten by Celia's sweet and honest nature. But the tables begin to turn when Jack realizes Celia actually feels sorry for him.  With all his hair-brained schemes and antics, Celia thinks he actually suffers from a mental illness!  But things aren't quite adding up and Jack isn't sure that Celia is really aiming for the prize of becoming a duchess.  By this time, the current duchess has already concluded that Celia could never fill her shoes and run Delacourt properly but Jack detests the thought of a cookie-cutter duplicate of his mother running Delacourt for him anyway.  Perhaps Celia would be the perfect candidate after all.   All this, and a moody cat named Manegold, create a beautiful and touching story that unfolds during the Christmas season.

Now I will be honest and share that I did find this story moved at a more leisurely, meandering pace than my usual reads.  Nothing wrong there but if you're the type who prefers to plow through a story while sitting on the edge of your seat eager for the next thing to happen, this story will probably move a bit slow.  There is no lacking in dialogue, which pleased me immensely because I abhor books that are heavily introspective.  This one balances nicely. 

I also enjoyed the little subplot with Jack's sister, Elizabeth - it shakes things up a little (Jack included) and helps round out the story.  If you have read the book The Nobody, you may remember Elizabeth as a minor character there as well.  A second subplot (which really comes first) involves Jack's mother and her urgency for finding a suitable replacement for herself.  I found the whole scenario to be poignant and beautifully illustrated.  Manegold, the cat, is a hoot even though he is really just a normal cat.  Ms. Farr describes the feline personality perfectly, which made Manegold fun to read especially since he was used as a tool to help the reader draw more out of the main characters.  But what I enjoyed most of all in this story was how Jack rang in Christmas for Celia.  It was sweet and sentimental and really showed Celia how he felt about her, rather than just telling.   It also wrapped the story up nicely even though this was one of those times when I wish there had been an epilogue.  Oh well, I will live.

All in all, this was a heartwarming story with characters you can't help but care about and root for their happiness.  I highly recommend this book as a lovely Christmassy historical romance with very mild sensual tones.  

My rating:  9 Loved it! 

These books stand alone but have a character connection:

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Heart of Christmas

Two classic tales from New York Times bestselling author Mary Balogh and Nicola Cornick and a brand new story from Courtney Milan!

A Handful of Gold - A love story from New York Times bestselling author Mary Balogh
Not only is Julian Dare dashing and wealthy, but he's the heir to an earldom. So what do you get a man who has everything? Innocent and comely Verity Ewing plans on giving Julian her heart—the most precious gift of all.

The Season for Suitors - An original romance from Nicola Cornick
After some close encounters with rakes in which she was nearly compromised, heiress Clara Davenport realizes that she needs some expert advice. And who better for the job than Sebastian Fleet, the most notorious rake in town? But the tutelage doesn't go quite as planned, as both Sebastian and Clara find it difficult to remain objective when it comes to lessons of the heart!

This Wicked Gift - An original romance from Courtney Milan
Lavinia Spencer has been saving her hard-earned pennies to provide her family with Christmas dinner. Days before the holiday, her brother is swindled, leaving them owing more than they can ever repay. Until a mysterious benefactor offers to settle the debt. Innocent Lavinia is stunned by what the dashing William White wants in return. Will she exchange a wicked gift for her family's fortune?

Finally an anthology where all three stories are good, strong reads!

I picked this book up last year when it came out and I put a gold star on the inside of the cover, which means that I liked the book and wanted to earmark it for re-reading.  Being short on reading time this Christmas season, I decided to read and enjoy the short stories again this year, which also gives me the opportunity to write a review!  So here we go!  But before we get too far, I've noticed more and more that anthologies, especially Christmas ones, contain short stories that have been reprinted at one time or another.  If you don't have one already, start a book list and note the individual anthology stories so you don't buy the same ones over and over.  The stories by Balogh and Cornick are both reprints, but Courtney Milan's story is new (at least it was in 2009). 

As I do with all anthologies, I rate each story individually as follows: LOVED IT, ENJOYED IT, JUST OK, or DIDN'T LIKE IT. My overall rating for the book will appear at the end of this post.

A Handful of Gold by Mary Balogh - Verity Ewing lives a double life.  To her mother and sister she is companion to Lady Coleman, but to the rest of London she is opera dancer Blanche Heyward.  Verity has no choice but to work if her sister Chastity is going to get the medicine she needs and being an opera dancer pays well but Verity is finding that it's not quite enough.  Several gentleman visit the dressing rooms after the shows and Verity begins to think she may need to accept an offer of becoming somebody's mistress to help provide for her family.  Enter Julian Dare.  He offers Blanche five hundred pounds if she spends Christmas week with him at his friend's county house in Norfolkshire.  Negotiating half payment before the trip, Blanche accepts his offer and reluctantly leaves her family behind to become a fallen woman.

ENJOYED IT.  Verity is a strong woman who basically martyrs herself to provide for her family although the last thing Julian wants is a martyr in his bed.  He doesn't know what to make of Blanche, especially when she stuns the everyone at the country house by deciding to decorate and celebrate Christmas.  She was very bold to start ordering people about in a house that was not hers.  Too bold, I thought.  Naturally, celebrating Christmas was not at all what the men had in mind for this little house party so there were some moments where I felt the story a bit forced, especially when there was no push-back from the other characters.  But things get more interesting when an overturned carriage topples and the passengers seek refuge from the storm.  A reverend and his family staying in a house with two men and their mistresses requires some quick thinking but events continue to unfold that just might create a memorable Christmas for them all.  As I have found with some other Balogh stories, there is a bit of sappiness that seeps through the pages.  The Christmas service Blanche arranges with the reverend was nice, but seemed over the top in the sentimental (dare I say corny?) department.  I think it was because it became another one of those instances that felt forced on the other characters but was made all sparkly and rosy because everyone just went along with it.  I did enjoy this story overall, especially the end as Julian searches and finds out about Verity's true identity, but just be prepared for a fair amount of sap along the way.

The Season for Suitors by Nicola Cornick - Clara Davenport needs help so she contacts the most notorious rake in town, Sebastian Fleet.  Sebastian calls on her and is floored when she asks for advice on how to outwit all the other rakes and scoundrels now that she is an heiress and can't seem to shake all the attention.  Refusing her proposition, he instead offers to protect her from unwanted suitors but when Sebastian sees for himself all the men who are attracted to Clara, jealousy begins to creep onto the scene and Sebastian finds he just might want Clara for himself after all.

ENJOYED IT.  I liked this story because its always fun when characters are fighting their own feelings.  It's interesting though that we learn early on that Clara had at one time proposed to Sebastian and he flatly refused her.  But later when he kisses her at the ball, he can tell that she has never been kissed before.  So, how exactly did the proposal come about originally?  This really had me intrigued.  He told her back then that he was not the marrying kind, but they hadn't, at the very least, even shared a kiss?  I became a tad more confused when I flipped back to when Sebastian first reads Clara's letter at the beginning of the story and he became "aware of rather more pleasure than seemed quite appropriate."  What exactly happened that eighteen months before when they had last seen each other?  We really don't learn any more about their past beyond this tidbit but it's obvious he is attracted to Clara. So, all of this contributes to Sebastian fighting with his own feelings, which is no surprise since we see how much he wants Clara but won't give in to what he feels.  Meanwhile, Clara's feelings for Sebastian, which she thought had diminished over the last year and a half, are back and strong as ever.  Sit back and enjoy the unraveling of this story but be aware that although it was an enjoyable read, there was nothing Christmassy in this story.  Not a Christmas carol, nor a sprig of mistletoe.  Nothing.  The story takes place in the winter season, but that's as close as you get. 

More to come... I'm still reading!

Under the Mistletoe

(Clipped snippets from the back cover letter to readers...)

A Family Christmas brings together a couple estranged since just after their arranged marriage the year before, and gives them the perfect chance to start over.

The Star of Bethlehem features one betrothal ring lost but three that are mysteriously found as a broken marriage is abundantly mended.

The Best Gift is the tale of a teacher who has never known family, love, or Christmas--then finds all three when asked to chaperon one of her pupils over the holiday.

In Playing House, a lonely aristocrat and his daughter are drawn to an impoverished young woman and her siblings, who are celebrating their last Christmas together with brave gaiety.

An assortment of unhappy travelers stranded by bad weather at an inn on Christmas Eve encounter love after a young couple arrives to that there is No Room at the Inn just as their child is about to be born.

Christmassy romance all around...

I picked this up at a used bookstore during my summer travels this year and looked forward to November 1st, which is when my Christmas reading officially began.  I selected this book in particular because I was in the mood for some short stories and since there are five in this book, I knew I would be assured of some light, quickie Christmassy reads.

Now, this book was published in 2006... nothing wrong there, but be warned... if you enjoy and read a lot of Balogh, you may have already read these stories.  A Family Christmas was the only new story to this book at the time of printing.  Ms. Balogh refers to the other four novellas as classic stories that were merely reprinted together to make this collection.  So don't run out to buy this before checking your booklist.  I know you have one, right?  ;)

As I do with all anthologies, I rate each story individually as follows: LOVED IT, ENJOYED IT, JUST OK, or DIDN'T LIKE IT.  My overall rating for the book is at the end of this post.  Let's begin!

A Family Christmas - Elizabeth and Edwin Chambers have been estranged since two weeks after their marriage, one year ago.  An agreement between Edwin's father and Elizabeth's parents unfolded into an arranged marriage where resentment and misunderstandings stand in the way of their relationship becoming anything warmer than a snowball.  While Edwin lives in London, Elizabeth's home is Wyldwood Hall where her parents have overstayed their welcome since the birth of her son.  Lady Templar, Elizabeth's mother, is a crabby, high and mighty, overbearing stick-in-the-mud who belittles Elizabeth at every turn.  But now that Edwin has decided to visit for Christmas, Lady Templar's plans for a large family Christmas gathering begin to crumble as Edwin takes the reigns and tries to show the family a fun and memorable Christmas.  Soon shared smiles and laughter emerge, showing Elizabeth and Edwin that perhaps something warmer could come of their marriage after all. 

ENJOYED IT.  Elizabeth is a sweet, nurturing new mother who just wants to be loved and looks to her infant son to take away her loneliness.  Edwin just didn't seem to know what to do with Elizabeth after they married so he sticks her in the country and visits twice a year.  But Lady Templar didn't (and still doesn't) help matters and we quickly see that she is an absolute ogre.  I was rooting for Elizabeth when she summoned the backbone needed to put her mother in her place to support Edwin, even with the emotional distance that lay between them.  Lord Templar doesn't say much in this story, but the words he does speak are a hoot!  This was a sweet Christmas story, but I found it parallelled a lot with Balogh's full-length novel A Christmas Promise.  Unfortunately, I had just finished reading A Christmas Promise a few days prior to reading this novella, so for me this story lost a lot of its oomph.  But overall, I did enjoy it! 

The Star of Bethlehem - Allan, the Earl of Lisle has a problem.  His wife.  Something has to change so he tells Estelle that after the obligatory family Christmas gathering, she will go to live with her parents for a while.  Perhaps the time away from each other will help since she doesn't seem to care at all about their marriage, nor is she discreet with her flirtations with other men.  How can she care about their marriage if she could add insult to injury and care less about losing the beautiful betrothal ring he gave her two years ago?  But a small boy named Nicky may help bring Estelle and Allan closer than they've ever been.  And with Christmas just around the corner, the holiday spirit works overtime to bring happiness and joy into their lives.

ENJOYED IT.  This was a story about a boy who helped save a marriage.  Estelle and Allan's marriage had been arranged but Allan's chilly personality has done little to warm Estelle up to him.  Nicky challenges Allan to soften his heart which gives Estelle a glimpse of a warmer, compassionate side of her husband, a side she wishes she could see more often.  In the midst of all this is the beautiful diamond and sapphire betrothal ring.  With its whereabouts unknown, Estelle and Allan end up with a Christmas filled with much more than they bargained for.

The Best Gift - Viscount Buckley reluctantly claims his niece, Deborah, from Miss Phillpotts' school for girls in order to bring her to his country home in Hampshire for Christmas.  With neither party happy with the plan, the viscount feels the need to have a companion for Deborah so he doesn't have to keep her entertained.  Caught completely off-guard is Jane, a young woman who has lived a solitary life, first in an orphanage, then as a student and now a teacher at the school.  Faced with the opportunity for a holiday away from the confines of the school, she packs a valise and joins her student.  But Viscount Buckley finds more than what he bargained for when he brings Jane and Deborah home.  And when another guest shows up to spend Christmas with the Viscount, it seems that plans need to be changed and a few priorities rearranged.

LOVED IT.  This was a really sweet story that centers around Jane, known simply as 'Craggs' to her students.  Jane has never known the wonders and magic of Christmas because she's never had a family to love or be loved by in return.  So when the opportunity to spend Christmas with anyone is presented, she leaps at it.  But upon arrival at the viscount's home, they find his young daughter sitting in the hall, abandoned by her mother.  Jane immediately goes into maternal mode and helps the girl feel welcomed and cared for in her new situation.  But the viscount isn't sure that Jane's suggestion to decorate and celebrate Christmas is the best of ideas, although it seems logical it could lift everyone's spirits.  Smiles begin to emerge as the halls become decked and snow begins to fall.  And Viscount Buckley, Jane, Veronica and Deborah learn that Christmas is the most magical season of all.

More to come... I'm still reading.